Did you know there are a TON of FREE camping locations right outside national parks and other places you may want to visit?
Living in the suburbs of Michigan, we had never heard of camping on BLM or Public land because there was none around us. When we moved to California, we started planning trips and found that camping inside the parks requires planning way in advance. Since Ty was in the military, that wasn’t really a fortune we had.
So, we loved finding out about these free campsites we could get to without advanced reservations. When we moved out west, we learned about dispersed camping on BLM and Public lands. We went on many camping trips for FREE right outside the national parks and we want to make sure you know about them too!
Already know all about free camping or boondocking on public land? Scroll down to see our favorite free campsites near national parks
For those that have never heard of this before, let us tell you all about it:
What are Public Lands?
Public Lands are broadly defined as land that is open to everyone but managed by the government. Different government organizations that manage public lands include BLM (Bureau of Land Management), USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service), and USFS (United States Forest Service).
How to Find Free Camping Locations Outside National Parks:
The most obvious is to check out the region’s specific website through the USFWS, USFS, or BLM sites. On these sites, you’ll find dispersed camping areas and specific rules and regulations (how long you can stay and if campfires are permitted). Look for the national forest or public lands outside the national park you want to visit to find a free camping location.
In addition to these sites, our favorite tool is Campendium.com. We like Campendium because it offers pictures and reviews from previous visitors. Campendium is a website that shows all different kinds of campsites and RV resorts, however, you can change your settings to only FREE camping locations.
We found that using those two in combination with each other has been the most useful.
Other tools we can’t wait to try include FreeRoam, FreeCamping.Net, and The Dyrt!
Leave No Trace Principles
Before discussing how we find our favorite sites, we want to briefly review outdoor ethics. Remember, these are public lands AND wilderness areas. To dig deeper into best practices, review the LNT website here
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
Make sure you know where you are going, have checked the weather, and have the necessary gear for your trip! Scroll below for how to find these free campsites to assist you in planning!
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Wandering off trail for the Instagram shot is not a good idea, always stay on marked paths and camp in locations that have already been used before (look for a fire ring). Stay on rock, sand, or gravel surfaces in order to avoid damaging vegetation.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
DON’T LITTER. Remember to remove any trash or debris you bring into an area, pack it in – pack it out. If you need to go when there is no restroom around and can’t pack it out, make sure to dig a hole at least 6-8 inches and over 200 feet from a water source. Please check ahead of time that it will meet the criteria and always pack out your toilet paper no matter what!
4. Leave What You Find
Some have come before you and others will come after you. We need to make sure these natural places still exist for future generations AND we don’t want to disrupt habitats more than we already do!
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
Camping may seem weird without building a campfire but they aren’t necessary to have a great time. Camp Stoves reduce the need for campfires. If you plan to have a fire, look for preexisting rings and make sure you responsibly gather wood only where it is allowed or buy local.
6. Respect Wildlife
You are in their home! Quiet observations ensure the animals are not stressed by large noises but you are also likely to see more staying quiet. Be considerate of the wildlife that calls each place home and respect the space.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Everyone should get to enjoy their experience. Be mindful of loud noises, animals, and music on the trails. Most people enjoy listening to nature and the solitude of the trail or campsite. Allow people to pass coming uphill by stepping to the side and if someone is walking at a quicker pace behind you let them pass.
Tips for camping on Public Lands:
Most of the official campgrounds on public lands do require a fee. When searching, make sure you are headed to a dispersed camping location and that there is no fee for the region or season you are camping in.
In most places, you can stay at these sites for up to 14 days per every 28 but make sure to double check! We normally only camped at a site for one or two nights so we never reached this limit.
Finding a free camping location: Always check for pre-existing fire rings because not all sites are marked or obvious.
These lands are also home to wildlife and the habitats need to be protected from further disturbance.
For more information about camping on BLM land click here
Our Favorite Free Campsites Outside National Parks & More
Outside Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Close to Zion National Park, near Kanab UT
We stumbled upon this campsite after a shift in our plans. A beautiful view and some trees to provide privacy from other campers, making it feel like it really was just us! Find this spot on Campendium here
Near Bryce Canyon National Park, Dixie National Forest UT
This spot is just a few miles from the entrance to Bryce and has a variety of campsites. There is a marked campground and some dispersed camping. Find this spot on Campendium here
Right by Valley of Fire State Park, NV
Although the area doesn’t share the park’s unique colored rocks, the sky always paints a picture as the sun sets. To get here exit the West Entrance of the park and drive a few miles. You will see a dirt path on the right and often an RV or two. Camp anywhere along the dirt road where you see a cleared spot or fire ring. There’s another dispersed camping area on the left side further from the park along this same road.